CATALANS Dragons are proving very difficult to finish off. Tonight, they will continue their bid to win Super League via a play-off system so convoluted that even HM Revenue and Customs might dismiss it as overly-complicated.
The Dragons finished eighth out of 14 teams during the regular Super League season, but are just two victories away from winning the title. You might think it ridiculous that a team could win a league competition having finished in the bottom half of the table. But if they succeed, it would be one of the biggest sporting upsets of recent times.
For a start, Catalans would be the first French club – indeed, the first non-English club – to win the Super League title. And they would have done it by working round an exhausting travelling schedule. To get to Headingley for tonight’s semi-final against Leeds, the Dragons squad are making a gruelling eight-hour journey from Perpignan to the north of England for a fourth successive weekend.
Should they upset Leeds, who are the overwhelming favourites, then Catalans will have to make that journey for a fifth successive weekend to get to Old Trafford for the Grand Final a week tomorrow, where the opponents will be St Helens or Wigan.
That Catalans have had to make that journey repeatedly over the last few weeks is down to a rejigged play-off system which really does take some getting your head round.
When Super League was formed in 1996, there were 12 teams. For the first two seasons, there were no play-offs at all – the team that finished top won the title. Simple.
Simple, but not as dramatic as having a floodlight Grand Final at a packed Old Trafford to decide the champions. So in 1998, the play-offs were brought in. This wasn’t anything new – the old Northern Rugby Football League championship title had often been decided on a play-off up until 1973 (of which more at the end of this blog entry). But it hadn’t been done with this much razzmatazz.
Initially, the Super League play-offs featured the top five, with the league champions getting two chances to reach the Grand Final. This was expanded to the top six in 2002.
With Super League having been expanded to 14 teams this season, the play-offs have been expanded to the top eight. And the play-off system has got really complicated, with a complex system which includes qualifiers, eliminators and the revolutionary ClubCall, which allows one of the semi-finalists to choose who they play against.
Catalans almost didn’t make the play-offs at all. After a surprise home defeat against Wakefield a month ago, it looked as though their season was over. Club president Bernard Guasch was so angry with the performance, he told the players they had let the club down, and were free to leave.
It was the kick up the pants they needed. Catalans squeezed into eighth spot with a surprise win at St Helens on the final Friday night of the season. It certainly surprised Sky Sports, who had bet on Bradford claiming the final spot and taken their live broadcast unit to cover the Bulls’ game at Hull.
But finishing eighth in a system weighted to give an advantage to teams with higher league positions meant that Catalans would have to play all of their play-off matches away from home. Two weeks ago, they won 25-16 at Wakefield. Last week, they caused an upset by winning 16-6 at Huddersfield to reach the last four. And then came ClubCall.
It’s a new feature in the Super League play-offs this season, and it’s certainly become a talking point. Under the ClubCall system, the semi-finalist with the highest final league position – in this case, table toppers Leeds – are given two potential semi-final opponents, and are allowed to pick whichever one they fancy.
Leeds chose Catalans, who have not only had an exhausting travel itinerary over the last few weeks, but have also never won at Headingley. As Catalans coach Kevin Walters put it at the start of the week: “Leeds made the logical decision. For us, there’s not a tougher away game to go to.”
No one in the Catalans squad has had to do as much travelling as Greg Bird. He has had to return to his native Australia three times in the last six months to deal with various legal issues. He is currently playing on bail, pending an appeal against a jail sentence imposed in June by an Australian court, where he was accused of glassing his girlfriend in the face.
That court case played a significant factor in Bird being refused a British visa when Bradford tried to sign him earlier this season. At that time, Leeds chief executive Gary Hetherington described Bird’s presence in Super League as “damaging to the reputation of the competition”. Hetherington is not alone in feeling that way. But Bird will tonight play a key part in the Dragons’ attempt to reach their first Super League Grand Final – and deny Leeds in the process.
If they do it, they will be a win away from equalling the record for being the lowest-placed league club ever to win the title. That record is held by Dewsbury, who finished eighth in what was then the Northern Rugby Football League in 1973. That was in the days when the league championship consisted of 30 teams, and the top 16 went into the play-offs.
After Dewsbury’s win, the play-off system was scrapped, not to return for a quarter of a century. Even if Catalans upset the odds and carry off the title at Old Trafford in a week’s time, there’s no chance of them being scrapped now. The play-offs are here to stay, and the Dragons might just cause as big a shock as domestic rugby league has seen in years.